x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Nigeria’s ‘Golden Eaglets’ promise bright future

Under 17 World Cup champions hailed as 'the future of Nigerian football'.

Nigeria celebrate after a goal against Mexico in Abu Dhabi. AP Photo
Nigeria celebrate after a goal against Mexico in Abu Dhabi. AP Photo

ABUJA // The future looks bright for Nigerian football after the country’s young stars won the Fifa Under 17 World Cup for the fourth time, underlining their strength at youth level.

The “Golden Eaglets” romped to a convincing 3-0 victory over defending champions Mexico in Abu Dhabi on Friday, prompting praise from Nigeria president Goodluck Jonathan and sending the football-mad country into raptures.

“They [the team] are the future of Nigerian football,” said coach Manu Garba, who was assistant coach when the team won the tournament in 2007.

Stand-out stars included Kelechi Iheanacho, who was named best player after scoring six goals, including four against Mexico in the group stages.

Iheanacho, an intelligent, skilful player with an excellent left foot, is said to have already attracted the eye of several of Europe’s top clubs, with English Premier League club Arsenal rumoured to be among them.

Captain Musa Muhammed is also seen as an exciting prospect, having scored three goals from right-back, while Dele Alampasu was named best goalkeeper in the competition.

Stephen Keshi, the Nigeria coach, who steered the senior team to African Cup of Nations (CAF) glory earlier this year, has tipped several players in the side to make the grade at the top level.

“I was impressed with [strikers] Isaac Success and [Taiwo] Awoniyi. They are young and will soon hit it big in this game,” he said.

“They have the qualities to earn their places in the senior team in the future.”

Keshi has a track record of nurturing home-grown talent rather than relying on big name foreign-based stars and made a point of selecting as many local players as possible during their successful CAF campaign.

He said he was not going to introduce the young players too soon, effectively ruling out the appearance of some of the Under 17 side in his squad for next year’s senior World Cup in Brazil, should Nigeria overcome Ethiopia on Saturday. Nigeria are 2-1 up from the first leg going in to the return fixture in the southern city of Calabar.

Instead, the former Togo and Mali manager Keshi said he preferred the youngsters to rise through the ranks.

“I will want the players to take the natural route of maturity, play for the ‘Flying Eagles’ [Under 20 team], then maybe the Under 23s and then we can start looking at them,” he said.

“During that period we may find one or two of them that can make impact in the national team and we will not hesitate to invite them.”

Several of Nigeria’s most famous footballers, such as former Arsenal striker Nwankwo Kanu, Chelsea’s Celestine Babayaro and John Obi Mikel, plus Victor Ikpeba, started out as schoolboy stars.

As such, there are increasing calls for the U17s to be given their chance early in senior football at the highest level, rather than spend too long in Nigeria’s domestic league.

“If you are good enough, you’re old enough and so I expect Keshi to have a look at some of these youngsters before long,” said Pius Ayinor, sports editor at Nigerian daily The Punch.

But former international Garba Lawal maintained that Nigeria should not get carried away by the U17 triumph and instead should be managed gradually until they are good enough to play at full international level.

“Without any doubt they are good players but their development must be gradual. We must not rush them because their level is very different from being a full international,” the former midfielder added.

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